The year 2020 is hard. First, Australia had experienced a great bush fire that killed 75 people, 186,000 square kilometres burnt down and over 5,900 buildings being destroyed. Many people had lost their homes in the fire and have to start a new life from scratch again. Then in March, we have the global pandemic of COVID-19, which still happening today that stopped the entire world. Our next-door state of Victoria is still under lockdown as I was preparing for this sermon, many people had lost their jobs, or family members or friends due to the pandemic, with over 1.1 million people have already died around the world from COVID. In the world of suffering, sometimes we don’t know what to do in fear of our future. But here in Australia, we are already very blessed by God. We have an excellent medical and welfare system from a good government. We are not persecuted or oppressed physically for our faith in Christ. Now imagine what happens to other followers of Christ who live in the other part of the world under religious persecution? How do they survive?
In many countries, Christians are denied food and pandemic-related health care assistance and support systems. According to the news, in Muslim-majority Pakistan and Egypt, life has become increasingly difficult for new converts after the COVID-19, families disown their family members if they convert to Christianity. Most of the Christians in these countries live in poverty. After the lockdown, Christians face an extra-hard life in these countries as they do not have work. Some of them even lacked the money to buy facemasks, hand sanitisers and soap. In China, churches are demolished, and Christians are arrested for holding online prayers.
So what can we do when hardship comes and how do we deal with sufferings in the time of difficulties? These are the topics that are addressed in the Bible.
1) Let light shine out of darkness
In chapter 4, Paul explains that the ministry of Christ is through God’s mercy. He told us not to “lose heart”. But what does it mean to be “lose heart”? It means two things: First, Paul did not give in to the temptation to use deceit in his ministry, and secondly, he did not crumble to the pressures of persecution and hardship. Instead, Paul renounced certain behaviours that would have been inappropriate to his calling. We are called to bring the Gospel of truth. And the Word of God shall never be distorted in our teaching or when we share the Gospel. For example, Paul’s opponents in the first century would rely heavily on human wisdom or abiding much on the legalistic doing of the Old Testament law. Rather, Paul presents the truth of Christ plainly. Our gospel message should be clear and simple. Whoever believes in Jesus Christ, who died for our sins and was raised to life again three days later by the glory of God shall receive the inheritance of eternal life. When we share the Gospel to our friends it should be clear that there is no other salvation other than Christ, and whoever believes shall not perish but have eternal life, but those who rejected Christ will not live but die in eternal death. The Gospel of Jesus appears veiled or hidden only to those who are perishing, because the god of this age, that is, the devil has blinded the minds of unbelievers so that they cannot see the truth in Christ. How we are to respond to the gospel message is not a matter of intellectual insight or philosophical wisdom. It is a matter of spiritual condition. The problem is that unbelievers cannot see the light of the Gospel of the glory of Christ. Satan and demons have been given a measure of dominion over the fallen world. As Ephesians 6:12 has written, “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” One of the powers of Satan is its ability to deceive and blind people to spiritual truth. It happened when unbelievers rejected the Gospel of Christ.
So Paul was convinced that the problem with unbelievers was in them and not in his presentation of the Gospel. True ministers of the gospel message do not preach themselves. They do not draw attention to their own clear speech. They do not put themselves as authority to rule over others. Instead, they draw attention to Jesus Christ as Lord. The true Christian Gospel always focuses on Christ’s honour, not on the ministers who bear the message. So by this, you know who are the faithful servants of the Gospel, and who are the false teachers. As Apostle Paul wrote in verse 5 and 6, “5 For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. 6 For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ.” (2 Corinthians 4:5-6)
When God first created his Creation, he said, “Let there be light”, and the light shines out of the darkness. In the same way, God made his light shine in our hearts. Jesus said he is the light of the world. “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12b) To live in Christ is walking in the light. And this light from Christ is the Word and power of our holy God, which gives us the true knowledge of God’s glory, revealing to us in the personhood of Jesus Christ. Whoever has seen that light will never be the same, they will turn to God and walk under the guidance of the light of Christ.
2) Suffering for the Gospel
However, there is a catch to follow Jesus. As Paul wrote in verse 7, “But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.” (2 Corinthians 4:7) Paul has used a metaphor of biblical imagery here, the treasure is the priceless Gospel of Christ and eternal life that it brings through him, but it is in “jars of clay” because God creates us as human through clay on earth as he first created Adam with the earth. Our ordinary human bodies are just carbon structure. But when God shapes us like a potter, we will become the usable earthly vessel for God to use in his kingdom. As Prophecy Isaiah wrote, “Yet you, LORD, are our Father. We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand.” (Isaiah 64:8)
In order to mould a piece of clay into usable jars, the potter has to press it hard to make the shape. Fine-tune it, taking off impurity and things that not needed to bend it to the shape desired by the potter. The clay takes hard pressure from the potter’s hands to form into a good vessel so that it can carry things inside. Similarly, Paul uses the metaphor of jar making as our lives moulded by God’s hand. He wrote in verse 8, “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; 9 persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. 10 We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.” (2 Corinthians 4:8-10)
Whoever wants to follow Jesus is expected to suffer for the Gospel. And God uses these pressures of suffering to mould our characters, to be better Christians, to be more like Christ in our lives. But we have the eternal hope in Jesus’ resurrection, waiting for the glorious day of resurrection. Therefore, as we died with Christ, we also have true life in him. The afflictions do not overcome us because we have the treasure of Christ’s Gospel. And we shall never give up because of this great treasure of life because God has planted it in us. Whoever endures the sufferings till the end will be victorious over our enemies. To carry around the death of Christ is to suffer repeatedly for his glory like Paul and all Apostles did. Our goal is that the life of Jesus might also be revealed in our mortal body. As Paul wrote in Philippians 3:10-11, “I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.”
Paul wants the Corinthians to realise that their new life in Christ came at the cost of suffering by those who ministered to them. So we should also remember those who suffered to bring us the gospel message, as well as the missionaries and local churches which are persecuted in this world for the gospels.
Let me tell you a true story:
In China, there is a church called Early Rain Covenant Church in the city of Chengdu, in the province of Sichuan, which began as several small groups in 2006. It became an independent church in 2008 with 63 members. In July 2011, the church installed Pastor Wang Yi as its pastor, and the church now consists of over 500 members of both blue and white-collar workers, children, university students, young professionals and young families. And since its founding, this Early Rain church has planted six other churches in Chengdu and nearby cities.
Now the Chinese law requires that the places of worship register and submit to government oversight, that means the government can send its officials to be in charge of church affairs, including what you can preach and what you cannot preach in sermons and what material you can use in bible studies. The government will also oversight any religious education and practices, with punishments for practices not sanctioned by local authorities. And the government has cracked down many underground churches which refused the government’s control of the church.
Beginning from December 2018 until now, Early Rain Church has been experiencing significant and persistent government persecution. Out of the 500 members, more than 200 church members have been arrested. In the winter of 2019, the church elder Qin Defu was sentenced to four years in criminal detention. Their pastor Wang Yi was sentenced to nine years in criminal detention. Many church and personal property of the church members have been seized and destroyed, and many families in the church have faced repeated deportation from their home to other provinces in China. But despite heavy persecution and imprisonment, today, the faith of Early Rain church still growing strong. These Chinese Christians brothers there still gather underground, pray and worship God, and learn God’s Word in small groups of member’s houses in secret, even their senior pastor Wang Yi is now in prison for Christ.
Their story sounds like what Paul and the early churches were experiencing in the New Testament time under the iron fist of the Roman Empire, isn’t it?
Paul reminds us that although we may think that we are at the end of our rope in despair, we are never at the end of our hope. Our mortal bodies are subject to sin and suffering, but God will never abandon us. Because Jesus, our Lord and Saviour, has won the victory over death, we have eternal life. All our risks, humiliations, and trials in this world are opportunities for Christ to demonstrate his power and presence in and through us. We must ask ourselves, “Could I handle the suffering and opposition that Paul had experienced?” The success syndrome is the great enemy of effective ministry for Christ. From an earthly perspective, Paul was not very successful. He was not rich. He did not build any monuments and buildings or conquer the world like Caesar. Like Paul, we must carry out our ministry, looking to God for strength. When opposition, slander, or disappointment threaten to rob you of the victory in Christ, remember that no one can destroy what God has accomplished through you.
3) Confidence through the suffering
What’s more, Paul wrote regarding the suffering for Christ, “All this is for your benefit, so that the grace that is reaching more and more people may cause thanksgiving to overflow to the glory of God.” (2 Corinthians 4:15) Apostle Paul suffered for the Corinthians’ benefit. The ultimate purpose of the apostolic ministry is that the Gospel might reach more and more people throughout the world. These people would then cause thanksgiving to overflow to the glory of God. Paul used this principle to explain the suffering that he and his company experienced, and the future resurrection for which they and the Corinthians hoped has the goal of giving glory to God. So Apostle Paul’s confidence flows from his understanding that God purposed everything in his ministry to contribute to the glory of God.
Paul had faced suffering, trials, and distress as he preached the Good News. But he knew that these suffering and trials would one day be over, and he would obtain God’s rest and heavenly rewards. As we face significant troubles in life, it’s easy to focus on the pain we are experiencing, rather than on our ultimate goal. Just as athletes concentrate on the finish line and ignore their discomfort, we, too, must focus on the reward for our faith and the joy that lasts forever. No matter what happens to us in this life, we have the assurance of eternal life, when all suffering will end, and all sorrow will flee away. As Prophet Isaiah prophesied long time ago, “and those the LORD has rescued will return. They will enter Zion with singing; everlasting joy will crown their heads. Gladness and joy will overtake them, and sorrow and sighing will flee away.” (Isaiah 35:10) Stand firm and wait for our eternal joy in Christ when he returns.
Paul then encourages us in his letter, “Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. 17 For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.” (2 Corinthians 4:16-17) He reaffirmed that he did not lose heart. There is a sharp distinction between what was happening to him outwardly and inwardly. In terms of his physical existence as “jars of clay”, he was wasting away. This is a true assessment of the human condition in a general sense for everyone. We are all wasting away. On a physical level, we are all moving toward death. Yet, Paul had in mind not only physical suffering, but hardships of every kind. Externally, he was wasting away. By contrast, inwardly Paul found the opposite to be true. He was renewed day by day, and spiritually he is stronger and closer to Christ every day. Paul, like every believer who put their trust in Jesus, we will be renewed by the resurrection when Christ returns.
At present, this paradoxical situation exists for all followers of Jesus. On the one hand, we have believed the Gospel, and we have been granted salvation. The Holy Spirit lives within believers as the deposit guaranteeing our future inheritance in God’s Kingdom, bringing many spiritual bodies at the end of the age. This is why Paul spoke of himself as decaying and being renewed at the same time. As he waited for his physical existence to be renewed at the resurrection, he took comfort and joy in the renewal of his inward person by the ministry of the Holy Spirit. We are also living in this overlapping situation, where outwardly we are living in this world that will perish like our mortal body. Still, we will be renewed again in the day of Resurrection when Christ returns. So don’t lose sight of our future hope that is promised by our God who lives forever and ever. No matter how we suffer in this world, they are momentary and insignificant by comparison with the eternal glory that far outweighs them. In line with the teaching of the Old and New Testaments, Paul was confident that all true believers would receive the eternal reward of glory and honour in the new heavens and new earth. The difficulties of this life are minor when compared to the wonder of our eternal salvation.
In an application point of view, it is easy to lose heart and quit in the face of difficulties. We all have faced problems in our relationships or in our work that have caused us to think about giving up. Rather than quitting when persecution wore him down, Paul concentrated on the inner strength that came from the Holy Spirit. Don’t let fatigue, pain, or criticism force you off the job. Renew your commitment to serving Christ. Don’t forsake your eternal reward because of the intensity of today’s pain. Your very weakness allows the resurrection power of Christ to strengthen you moment by moment, day by day.
Our troubles should not diminish our faith or disillusion us. We should realise that there is a purpose in our suffering. There is a purpose that God let us suffer for his sake. Problems and human limitations have several benefits:
Firstly, they remind us of Christ’s suffering for us;
Secondly, they keep us from pride;
Thirdly, they cause us to look beyond this brief life;
Fourthly, they give us opportunities to prove our faith to others;
Fifthly, they allow God to demonstrate His power in us.
God let it happens so that we can see our daily troubles as opportunities to experience God’s grace in our lives. As Paul expressed in verse 18, “So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” (2 Corinthians 4:18)
Our ultimate hope when we are experiencing terrible illness, persecution, or pain is the realisation that this life is not all there is – there is life after death. Keep our faith and knowing that we will live forever with God in a place without sin and suffering can help us live above the pain that we face in this life.
Look away from what is seen in the physical world, to what is unseen in the spiritual reality. The unseen has not yet come. We are still waiting for Christ’s return. But by fixing our attention on the future salvation in Jesus, we can find strength like Paul in our disappointments and hardships of this life. What can be seen now is temporary; while what is unseen is eternal. Once Jesus returns in glory and brings the fullness of salvation to his people, that state of blessing will never end.
So let us recap what we have learnt today in God’s Word:
First, The knowledge of the blessings we will receive in the end when Christ returns should comfort us in our present sufferings.
Secondly, pastors and laypeople, who minister in the church must rely on God’s mercy for their effectiveness.
Thirdly, Believers should present the truth plainly, not trusting clever speech to accomplish God’s work.
Fourthly, when we suffer for the Gospel, we should be encouraged that our suffering honours Christ and advances the Gospel.
Let us give thanks to the Lord for His Words in prayer.